Celia Mattison

Tajja Isen’s debut essay collection reveals her as a multihyphenate talent—voice actor, singer, editor, writer, law school graduate—with a delicious knack for wordplay and language. In Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, Isen writes about the disparity between the “token apologies and promises” made by white people and what Black people actually want and take for themselves.

The strongest essay, which lends its name to the book’s title, examines the relationship white women have to power and pain, which Isen dubs the “aesthetics of vulnerability.” Continuing a thread from the previous essay about the popularity of Black trauma writing, Isen looks at how self-indulgence has been romanticized by white female artists. “If you’re always in pain you’ll never want for material,” she writes of these white artists’ impulse to glamorize their sadness.

Another standout essay is “Hearing Voices,” Isen’s personal exploration of voice acting as a transformative and potentially empowering art form. In addition to outlining her own experiences as a Black voice actor, she discusses “Big Mouth,” “Central Park” and “The Simpsons,” three animated shows that cast white actors to voice nonwhite characters and then apologized for this choice in 2020.

This essay also underlines a central weakness of the book: It already feels dated. Scanning the table of contents feels like reading a list of Twitter’s most popular trending topics from 2020. In the churn of the modern news cycle, it seems inevitable that not every moment referenced would have cultural staying power, but it’s especially frustrating when Isen chooses intentionally ephemeral data points, like viral trailers for made-for-TV movies or deleted Instagram posts.

In the book’s most compelling moments, Isen makes the churn the point: Whatever Starbucks or Lena Dunham did and subsequently apologized for in 2020 is something they’ll do again in 2030. Rather than revealing a new issue, the “Big Mouth” casting controversy confirmed something Isen had already learned early in her voice acting career: “The problem is the ivory grip on what Black sounds like.”

Throughout the collection, Isen engages the greatest hits of leftist Twitter discourse but with the type of nuance that’s impossible in 280 characters. She admits to “keeping an eye on the writers at the vanguard, seeing what kind of behavior gets rewarded,” and that’s reflected in the originality of Some of My Best Friends’ content—but it’s Isen’s original perspective and clever language that will win over readers.

Tajja Isen’s debut essay collection reveals her as a multihyphenate talent with a delicious knack for wordplay and language.

Journalist Karen Cheung’s intimate memoir of Hong Kong explores what it means to live in and love a complicated city. In The Impossible City, Hong Kong frequently appears as a temperamental partner described in body horror-like terms: It’s a city that’s dying, a city “on the verge of mutilation,” a city ready to disappear. But Cheung’s Hong Kong is also vividly multifaceted, at once marked by the constructed “Hong Kong cool” glamorized in Wong Kar Wai films and yet full of people yearning for a more equitable future built through collective action and protest.

Though Cheung was ambivalent about Hong Kong as a child, an outsider in both the elite international school and public secondary school she attended, she eventually embraced her hometown as a second family after her beloved grandmother died and her father’s home became too abusive to remain in. Alongside her evolving personal relationship with Hong Kong, she narrates the city’s most significant and turbulent moments from her lifetime, including the Handover in 1997, when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China; Occupy Central in 2014, also known as the Umbrella Movement, when crowds occupied Hong Kong for 79 days to demand more transparent elections; and both the SARS and COVID-19 pandemics. In Cheung’s hands, the problems, charms and complexities that characterize the city are illuminated with grace and intelligence. She refuses to write from a distance or cater to a white audience, dismissing the bland both-sidesism of modern journalism.

Cheung explores gentrification not just through statistics and citations but through a summary of the six different residences and 22 different roommates she lived with in just five years. An ongoing and citywide mental health crisis is discussed through her own struggle to access reliable psychiatric care. Most powerfully, The Impossible City asks how we can belong to and believe in a city and world that are frequently disappointing, and how we can continue to care about a future we may never see.

Cheung’s luminous memoir will appeal to both those familiar with Hong Kong and armchair travelers hoping to better understand the roots of the city’s political movements. Beyond that, The Impossible City will resonate with anyone who has struggled to love their city of residence in a time characterized by political dissent, racial strife and pandemic.

In Karen Cheung’s luminous debut memoir, Hong Kong’s problems, charms and complexities are illuminated with grace and intelligence.

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